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The Guardian: EU countries seek to annex lucrative tract of Atlantic seabed

UK, Ireland, France and Spain in mining rights bid
Environmentalists accuse coalition of ‘land grab’

Owen Bowcott, Ireland correspondent
Tuesday June 6, 2006

A vast tract of the Atlantic seabed more than 200 miles off shore is being claimed by a coalition of four European countries eager to expand their oil and gas prospecting rights.
The joint submission to the United Nations by France, Ireland, Spain and the UK is based on a novel legal approach that is transforming the international politics of underwater prospecting. Environmentalists have condemned the procedure as legitimising “land grabs”.

The diamond-shaped zone straddles the outer edge of the continental shelf under the Celtic sea and the Bay of Biscay. It covers 31,000 square miles, an area the size of Ireland, at a point where the seabed plunges down to what is known as the Porcupine Abyssal Plain.

The waters there are up to 5,000 metres (16,500 feet) deep, almost double the depth at which commercial extraction of gas is viable at present. Deposits of frozen methane, which may provide another energy source, are expected to be found.

The combined claim was submitted two weeks ago to the New York-based UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The four countries are seeking recognition of their collaborative prospecting rights before deciding how to subdivide the area.

The application is based on fresh geological and geophysical data obtained last year by a team of scientists from the four EU states working on the Spanish research vessel Hesperides. The ship traversed the ocean, tracking submerged slopes and plotted what is described as a new “continental shelf outer limit”.

The submission, due to be debated at the next CLCS session in August, is the first combined claim to be heard by the UN group. By acting together, the EU countries hope to overcome any international resistance.

What they hope to show is that the outer reaches of the shelf extend beyond what had previously been established. By increasing the shelf’s size they will be able to annex the new resources.

The Atlantic fringes have been the scene of intensive petrochemical exploration. Ireland’s first commercial gas field was discovered off Kinsale, County Cork, as long ago as 1973.

Another large gas find is due to begin production soon off the County Mayo coast of western Ireland. The route of the pipeline ashore from Shell’s Corrib field has proved controversial, and last year led to the jailing of local protesters.

Last summer five men, known as the Rossport Five, spent 94 days in jail for obstructing the construction of the Shell pipeline in County Mayo. They claimed a high-pressure pipeline to pump unrefined gas from the Corrib Field in the Atlantic Ocean to the onshore terminal would pose a safety and environmental risk.

In 1997 Greenpeace members protested against UK territorial claims to the remote outcrop of Rockall in the North Atlantic, a land grab that would have given the Britain the surrounding oil exploration rights. The environmental activists clambered on the islet and renamed it Waveland to publicise their campaign.

Last month’s submission by the four EU states is based on an alternative, legal means of extending the normal 200-mile exploration limits. Such claims rely on demonstrating by soundings that the adjoining continental shelf runs further out to sea. Land can be claimed up to 60 nautical miles from the bottom of the shelf.

“Where the submerged prolongation of its land territory extends beyond 200 nautical miles,” an Irish government statement explained, “a state is required [to set out] … the coordinates of the outer limits of the shelf claimed and …. [provide] technical and scientific data to support the claim.” Ireland already has another adjoining application under consideration at the CLCS.

Explaining the move, the republic’s foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, said: “We probably don’t have either the technologies or the economics of scale to work in such waters [now]. But as energy prices continue to soar and our ability to tap resources is realised, our exploration rights to such a vast expanse of ocean will pay dividends for generations to come.

“We are effectively locking up control of thousands of square kilometres of unexplored seabed deep into the Atlantic for our children and their children.”

But Greenpeace’s policy director in the UK, Simon Reddy, branded the process as unfair. “This is becoming a bone of contention,” he told the Guardian. “Once a few states try this then everyone will have a go. It’s basically a land grab.

“Countries are trying to seize international areas for their oil and gas resources. Only really wealthy countries [can afford] access to this legal framework. Developing countries will be at a disadvantage.”

The deadline for registering claims with the UN has been extended until 2009, according to Chris Carleton at the UK Hydrographic Office. “There are about 50 states that may make claims,” he said.

“It’s a complex geographic and geophysical exercise. You have to provide details about the precise foot of the continental shelf slopes or measure sedimentary thicknesses.”

According to the UN Convention on the the Law of the Sea, applicant states may register their rights by “establishing the foot of the continental slope, by meeting the requirements stated for the thickness of sedimentary rocks, by satisfying geomorphological requirements [or] by meeting distance and depth criteria”.

No country may claim any part of the seabed more than 350 miles from its shore. Once rights are established, states may extract the minerals and natural gas or oil discovered in the annexed seabed.


A continental shelf is the edge of a land mass that extends into the sea, forming the seabed adjacent to the coast before it slopes away into deep ocean. Shelves are formed when tides erode land and lay down sediment, and they are rich in natural resources. Under the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf (1958), each country has the right to mine its coastline; others wanting to mine the seabed must get permission from the state whose coast borders that area of continental shelf. The convention set the shelf limit at 200 nautical miles from the coast. Countries with shelves that extend beyond this must agree on the limit with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. If the commission approves their bid, Ireland, France, Spain and the UK will win rights to mine the oil and gas in the disputed area, and prevent other countries from doing so.

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